Brief Introduction to U.S. Cell Phone Carriers

Selecting a wireless carrier is just as important as picking a phone. The provider, after all, delivers the network that makes your handset work. And since you'll probably end up paying a healthy amount for that privilege, there's no point in sticking with a bad user experience.

Fortunately, CNET is here to help guide you through the decision process. Read on for the major factors that you should consider when choosing a carrier, followed by brief descriptions of each of the major players that CNET reviews. Also, be sure to consult CNET's cell phone buying guide if you need help buying a phone.

1) Coverage is key

You can't do much on your phone without a signal, so make sure that you can get coverage in the places that you'll need it. That means looking beyond carrier slogans and coverage maps (though the latter is a good place to start) and doing your own research.

The best way to gauge coverage in your area is to ask your neighbors. See which carrier they use, and ask if they're satisfied. You even can borrow a friend's phone and use it at home and in your workplace to see if you'll get the reception that you need. Sure, it's a very unscientific method, but personal experience is really the best tool.

Just remember that no carrier network is perfect. Gaps exist, even in urban areas, and reception can vary by your precise location. For example, a carrier's signal may not penetrate deep into buildings and underground, and it will vary according to how many people are using a network at a given time (think about how hard it is to get a signal at a big public event).

Another point to consider is whether a carrier uses GSM or CDMA. GSM (think T-Mobile and AT&T) is the dominant global technology and is used in almost every country around the world. So if you're a globe-trotter and want to take your phone on your travels, make sure it supports GSM. Though strong in North America, CDMA (think Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and most smaller carriers) is present in only a handful of countries outside of the United States. If your phone is CDMA-only, your international coverage will be limited. Fortunately, handsets that support both technologies are widely available. GSM phones also are easier to unlock, meaning that you can take them to another carrier as long as your chosen device supports the necessary cellular bands.

2) Data speeds

Of course, making calls is just one thing that you'll do on your phone. And if you're like a lot of smartphone owners, it may be the last thing. That's why you also need to carefully evaluate data networks. Data networks enable your handset to access the Internet, send e-mails, stream music and video, and download the apps that have become so popular.

Most U.S. carriers in the United States are now locked in an always-evolving race to build the largest and fastest 4G LTE data network. So just like with a provider's voice network, data coverage and strength will vary widely by area. If you want LTE (and really, why wouldn't you?), know where the carrier has 4G coverage and how fast it is. And just like with calls, make sure you've tried a carrier's data network before committing.

3) Plans

After coverage, your service plan is the most central component of your carrier experience. It dictates how long you have to stay with a carrier, how many calling minutes and how much data you'll get, and the price that you'll pay each month. Prices will largely depend on how many calling minutes and the amount of data that you expect to use. Be sure to get what you need, but don't overspend, either. And remember that monthly taxes and fees will add more dollars to your final bill.

The benefit of signing a contract is that you'll get a heavy discount on the price of your phone. If that's not your thing, month-by-month prepaid plans bring more freedom, but the services and available handsets may be more limited. Also, without a subsidy that comes with a contract, you'll pay more for a handset up front. Here again, just think carefully about what's right for you.

Pay equal attention to the plan's terms. Though carriers now offer unlimited calling, some providers still have plans that limit the amount of minutes that you can use during weekdays (often called "anytime minutes"). Minutes for nights and weekends, on the other hand, are always unlimited. Messaging brings its own charges so be sure to explore your options. You're better off buying a message bundle or paying for unlimited messaging than paying for each message that you send.

Data plan types also vary widely. Some deliver unlimited data while others restrict you to a certain amount for each month (what we call tiered plans). Once you go over your set data amount, you'll have to pay big fees. Alternatively, if you're getting service for a family or group of friends, shared plans will pool voice and data use across multiple devices. Note also that some carriers charge extra if you want to enjoy 4G speeds.

4) Your phone

If your heart is set on a particular phone that's available with only one carrier, then you may have skipped the previous points entirely. But if you've yet to decide which handset you should buy (again, see CNET's cell phone buying guide for more help with that process), don't assume that each carrier's device lineup is the same. Selection varies widely, so it pays to think about which kind of phone you'd like and which carrier(s) offer it.

A welcome trend over the last year is that popular devices like the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3 now land at multiple providers. That may help make your decisions easier, but keep in mind that even on these common phones you can have a vastly different customer experience depending on your carrier choice.

5) Customer service

Unfortunately, there's no way to predict this. For everyone who has a horror story with a provider, there probably are almost as many people who have had no problem. Also, though consumer studies singing the praises of different carriers continue to get headlines, there are no guarantees. So all you can do is make your choice, hope for the best, and be your own advocate if you aren't pleased.

by Kent German  (http://reviews.cnet.com/best-cell-phone-carriers/)

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